21 Million Americans, Mostly Men, Have Sleep Apnea : Snoring Symptom of Serious Affliction

United Press International

If you are a man who snores, your problem may be more serious than you thought.

Rowland Keenan of Mission Viejo, for instance, was proud of his ability to nod off immediately after dinner, but he always felt tired during the day.

The chance exists that many heavy snorers are afflicted, like Keenan, with a relatively little-known and often serious breathing-sleeping disorder known as sleep apnea. The sickness afflicts an estimated 30 percent of the world’s population and about 21 million Americans, most of them men.

The illness has been linked to impotence, fatigue, heart disease, high blood pressure, chronic lung problems and, in some cases, death, Dr. Bernard deBerry, a Laguna Hills surgeon and sleep apnea specialist, warns.

In basic terms, apnea is a state of not breathing. Snoring does not cause the disorder; it is a symptom.


Sleep, Breathe at Once

“A person who has sleep apnea is a person who cannot sleep and breathe at the same time,” DeBerry said.

The illness is caused by two factors: a malfunction in the brain when it is in the sleep mode, and physical abnormalities, like an enlarged palate, misplaced tongue or blocked nostril, which obstruct breathing.

Keenan, 45, a computer marketing manager, had all three problems, but he didn’t know it. Like most, he was unaware that he was sick.

“I didn’t know I had these symptoms until I read an article about Dr. DeBerry,” Keenan said. “I had all the myths of a heavy, healthy sleeper: heavy snoring, falling asleep any place, any time. A feeling of tiredness.”

He went to DeBerry, who sent him home with a microcomputer monitor and sensors to hook up to his body while sleeping. The results of the monitor and subsequent tests at a sleeping center showed that Keenan’s breathing passages were partially obstructed by his palate, tongue and blocked nostril.

Oxygen Level Down

“They found out my brain was literally awake to keep my tongue from slipping back into my throat,” Keenan said. “I would have 40 episodes per hour when I would not breath for 20 seconds. My oxygen level during sleep was 72 to 75 percent, when the normal level is 95 percent.”

Keenan, who had shrugged off his fatigue as because of his age, was told he could opt for a mask that would pump air into his throat at night or surgery to move his tongue and correct his nose and palate. After calling some of DeBerry’s patients, Keenan opted to have the five-hour surgery at South Coast Medical Center Aug. 1. He is astounded by the difference.

“I really feel so much better, and it’s only been eight weeks,” he said. “My mental attitude is much better at work, even my co-workers can see the difference. Now I don’t fall asleep after dinner. Now I can even watch the 11 o’clock news.”

Another DeBerry patient, Cyril Beck, 54, of Mission Viejo, nearly died from his sleep apnea, the doctor said.

“Basically, he had respiratory failure,” DeBerry said.

The condition, compounded by chronic lung ailment, forced DeBerry to perform an emergency tracheotomy. In a subsequent operation, DeBerry reconstructed Beck’s malformed palate and jaw. In addition to saving Beck’s life, the operations cured his chronic problem of impotence, the patient said.

Undiagnosed Can Die

The doctor said patients like Beck who are not diagnosed often die. Of about 50 of the people diagnosed as having sleep apnea in a Stanford University study about 15 years ago, about four or five patients who chose not to be treated later died, most of them in their sleep, the doctor said.

Not all cases require surgery, DeBerry said. Many can be corrected by sleeping in different positions or refraining from eating heavy meals and drinking alcohol before bedtime. The problem also seems to be aggravated by weight gain, especially in men, who gain weight in their necks and tongue, and a lack of exercise.

Doctors are not sure why--it may have something to do with hormones--but the sickness afflicts men more than women by a 7-1 ratio, DeBerry said.

DeBerry, a native of Poland who was educated at Oxford in England and at Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York, has devoted much of his professional life to researching the relatively new medical field and curing sleep apnea sufferers. The biggest hurdle, he believes, is educating other doctors, from neurologists to psychiatrists, as well as the public, about the disease.

“It’s entirely a new area of medicine,” he said. “It’s only been in this country about 15 years.”

From Seven to 200

Ten years ago, there were only seven sleep treatment centers in the United States. Today, there are nearly 200. Most are connected and staffed by hospital doctors, such as the one at UC Irvine.

In an effort to educate his colleagues and share ideas, DeBerry has organized international and national symposiums in Newport Beach.

“What I want to say,” DeBerry said in describing his mission, “is that there is sleep medicine, and that many people get seriously ill while they are asleep. Sleep is not always a state of rest and a regaining of health.”